The Spanish galleon Trade - sunken Treasures

treasure gem plumeria On September 20, 1638, the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, a Spanish galleon plying the lucrative trade route between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco, foundered in bad weather and was hurled onto a reef. Most of the 400 people on board perished, and her precious cargo from the Orient spilled into the sea.

At the southernmost point of Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands {200 miles north of Guam}, one of the grand Spanish merchant ships -- loaded with Chinese silks/rugs, porcelain, ivory, cotton from India, ivory from Cambodia, camphor from Borneo, cinnamon and pepper and clove from the Spice Islands,and precious jewels from Burma, Ceylon, and Siam -- that plied the Pacific between the Philippine and Mexico for 250 years was wrecked through mishandling. Not long into its voyage, a mutiny arose on the Concepcion over the inexperience of her commander, the young nephew of Manila's governor. Refusing to obey orders, several officers each tried to gain control of the ship. Amid the confusion, the galleon broached in severe weather. With sails caught aback, high winds snapped the masts, sending them overboard in a tangle of rigging. Wind and currents drove the crippled ship off course and onto a reef off Saipan, the second largest island in the Marianas. treasure gem in coral

Following a 1644 inquiry into the Concepcion's loss, Spanish officials charged that Manila's colonial governor, Don Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera, had misappropriated treasures in the Philippines and was shipping them back to Spain as personal cargo. Among the 59 charges brought against Corcuera was the accusation that he shipped personal booty -- treasures of gold and jewelry procured as bribes for granting special favors and appointments. He was also charged with appointing his nephew, Don Juan Francisco, to command the ship to protect the governor's spoils. Francisco was "at most 22 or 24 years of age", and "of little age or experience in military or naval matters." treasure gem in banana leaf

The manila galleon trade was one of the most persistent, perilous, and profitable commercial enterprises in European colonial history. Between 1565 and 1815 it carried the treasures of the Orient to the West via Mexico in exchange for New World silver and the manufactured goods of Europe. One (1) galleon a year would embark on the trip. More than 40 galleons were lost in the treacherous seas over the centuries, but the search for their remains traditionally focused on the Atlantic and Carribbean legs of the trip.

The Concepcion was the largest Spanish ship built up to her time -- between 140 and 160 feet long and displacing some 2,000 tons, with a loaded draft of between 18 and 22 feet. The Concepcion was also one of the richest galleons of her day, with cargo worth tens of millions of dollars today.

gold necklaces Unfortunately, the Concepcion sailed without an inventory of her cargo. In 1636 a customs agent named Quiroga began closely inspecting incoming galleons to see if the Manila merchants were loading more than the registers showed. The merchants retaliated by refusing to supply manifests for the voyages. On July 31, 1638, Corcuera informed King Philip IV that the Concepcion would sail without a register because of Quiroga's unfair treatment. amphora jars

The galleon trying desperately to clear Saipan's Agingan Point but was hurled into the reef by towering waves and pulverized against the coral, spilling ballast and cargo from the gaping holes below the waterline, passengers and crew leaping to the churning seas and facing the spears and slingstones of waiting Chamoru islanders. The superstructure washed into the shallow water, and a section containing storage jars broke away and drifted seaward into deep water.

The loss of the Concepcion was an event that proved costly to the Spanish crown and its fate is an allegory of man's greed. The excavation yielded more than 1,300 pieces of 22.5-karat gold jewelry - chains, crucifixes, beads, buckles, filigree buttons, rings and brooches set with precious stones. The Conception wreck site yielded a time capsule of early 17th-century jewelry and has proved that European-style jewelry was being made in the Philippines. 156 intact storage jars were discovered at depths between 140 and 250 feet. Later study revealed that they had come from kilns in South China, Cochin China (Vietnam), and Siam (Thailand), and one was of Spanish design.

The Manila galleons usually made stops in the Marianas from Acapulco, so water was secured on deck or below in stoneware vessels. Sturdily made, galleons were used over and over again, for decades. Eventually, the galleon trade crumbled under Spain's restrictive policies, the confusion attending Napoleonic invasions, and the outbreak of Mexico's wars of independence.

Information obtain from National Geographic Vol. 178 No. 3 September 1990
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